Bosco trains

Maura McGraw, 14, trains Bosco in agility for events at the Howard County Fair through 4-H. (Algerina Perna/Baltimore Sun / July 22, 2012)

With Maura McGraw running beside her, Penny the French hound hurtles through the 24-foot-long tunnel of red nylon in her owners' backyard in Woodbine. And when the 7-year-old pooch races out the other end, Maura is there, waiting to heap on the praise.

Not to be outdone, even at age 11, Bosco the yellow Labrador retriever takes his eagerly awaited turn with Maura, proving he still has what it takes. Both dogs also practice jumping hurdles and other skills.

While cows, pigs, goats, horses and sheep all come to mind when 4-H is mentioned, dogs are doing their best to upstage the traditional livestock stars of the Howard County Fair.

At this year's 67th edition of the fair, which runs Aug. 4-11, Maura will join with her older sister Annie and other county 4-H'ers who've been working hard to prepare their dogs for agility trials and rally obedience, increasingly popular events that are scheduled for Aug. 10 at the West Friendship fairgrounds off Interstate 70.

"Agility and rally have really taken off," said Sheryl Bennett, 4-H educator at the University of Maryland Extension office on Ridge Road in Ellicott City. "They are new avenues that expand on traditional obedience training."

Agility trials have the dog move along a course of jumps and tunnels; they also include contact events like the dog walk, teeter-totter and A-frame ladder. There are also courses with 10 jumps and two tunnels, and with 10 tunnels and two jumps, for dogs that demonstrate a stronger aptitude in one area.

Rally combines an obstacle course of numbered stations with written commands that owners follow to demonstrate their dogs' obedience skills.

Maura, 14, will also participate in showing, fitting and obedience events that are more formal in nature, along the lines of the Westminster Kennel Club dog show, an event that has been held annually in New York since 1877.

She and Annie belong to a 4-H chapter called Happy Hounds, which has a roster of 35 kids ages 8 to 18, but the girls also have other interests. Maura belongs to the Howard County Dairy Club and will show a heifer she's leasing, and will also show her pigs, goats and ducks. Annie, 16, will enter the table-setting and photography contests.

But the appeal of the canine competitions attracts more and more of the 100,000 people who attend the fair each year.

"We set up four or five sets of bleachers because we really get a crowd," said Donna McGraw, a volunteer and the mother of Maura, Annie and their older sister, Carolyn, 20, who now serves as a 4-H superintendent.

"Then we just hope [the audience will] clap and laugh in all the right places."

The newer events are just more fun, both for the 4-H'ers and spectators, Donna McGraw said. Kids can talk to their dogs "as much as they want," a freedom that is not permitted during formal events, when only a limited number of specific verbal commands and hand signals can be used, she explained.

"Sometimes kids get in the ring and feel so nervous because everything is so rigid" in the showing, fitting and obedience categories, she said. "But they can get silly and excited during agility and rally."

Some of the funnier aspects are the unrehearsed moments, Maura said; for instance, when a dog catches a whiff of the food someone's eating in the stands.

"One year, Bosco smelled someone's peanut butter sandwich," the rising sophomore at Glenelg High School recalled. "So he went over to check that out first before starting the rally course."

Bosco, of course, isn't the only dog distracted by intriguing scents. That's why the canine events are scheduled at 8:30 a.m., before the more aromatic livestock animals make their appearance on the fairgrounds and distract the dogs, Donna McGraw said.

"Even a perfectly trained dog can get on a scent" and refuse to perform, she said.

McGraw says Bosco could be the poster dog for the Howard County 4-H clubs because "he's a big, lovable lug" and when it comes to competition, "he's on it and ready," despite signs of aging. And Penny, a petit basset griffon vandéen, or PBGV for short, gets excited about competing, too.

"The dogs all love to be with their friends, and they love to be worked," she said.